Last minute errands kept Laura out of the house, running from the grocery store to the bakery to the pet supply store for food for Jasper. And a cat bed, and cat toys, and cat treats…
She pulled into her driveway and checked her watch. Will should have been finished painting the living room. Craig and George were due tomorrow morning and she had so much to finish before they arrived.
Sure enough, Will was packing up his truck.
“Everything done?” She asked.
“Yep. Right on time. I’ll be by tomorrow to get paid.”
“Thanks. Yes. Tomorrow. I’ll have your money then.”
“Fine. Good day,” he said, a funny smirk on his face as he closed the back of his vehicle. Laura shrugged. Hoisting her packages up into her arms, she trudged up the walk, and put the key in the lock. The smell of freshly painted walls hit her nose before she entered. Making a mental note to open all the doors and windows, no matter how cold it was outside, she stepped into the foyer. As she raised her gaze to the living room, the packages fell from her hands, and her mouth dropped open.
Unable to breathe for a moment, her eyes wide, Laura staggered into the room, falling on the sofa. She blinked, rubbed her eyes and blinked again.
“Oh, no. He wouldn’t!”
Oh, yes, he had. The room was painted a deep, vibrant red, not the light lemon yellow, with gold trim. She jumped up and ran outside, yelling. Will had thrown his truck in drive and was pulling away from the curb when she went running up to him. He rolled down the window.
“Will Grant! You son-of-a-bitch! You painted the living room the wrong color!”
“Did I?” He feigned an innocent look.
“You know damn well you did! You get your butt in there and fix it this minute!”
“Gee, sorry. I can’t do that. I have another job and I’m late now.”
She yanked his arm, removing his hand from the wheel.
“Why, Will? Why’d you do that?”
“Scarlet, the color of a fallen woman.”
“You’re sleepin’ with that rich guy. Just ‘cause he’s got money. How’s a poor guy like me gonna compete? Just want Mr. Money Bags to know, the minute he walks in, what kind of woman he’s dealin’ with. Red, the color of a whorehouse.”
Reaching inside his cab, she slapped his face. “How dare you speak to me like that!”
Rubbing his cheek, he responded, his voice softer. “I’ve loved you a lot longer than Money Bags. You never give me the time of day. Maybe now you’ll pay attention.”
“How could you?” Her eyes watered.
“What’s the matter? Ole Money Bags doesn’t like red?”
“His whole house is done in subtle, elegant, subdued colors.”
“Maybe now he’ll know what a spitfire he has in you.”
“It’s awful. I hate it.”
“Okay. After the holiday, I’ll repaint it. And even pay for the paint.”
“That’ll be too late.”
“Yeah? Like it’s too late for you and me.”
“There’s never been anything between us, Will.”
“Not for my lack of tryin’. You never give me a chance.”
“We’re not meant to be. No chemistry. I’m sorry, Will. And now, well…”
“As if I had a chance?”
She shook her head. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you. And now you’ve hurt me. Craig’ll hate it.”
“Too damn bad. Guess you’ll find out how much he really cares for you.”
Will stepped on the gas. The truck lurched away from Laura. She watched for a few moments, then returned to her house. She plopped down on the sofa, her head in her hands.
Muttering, “it’s hideous,” she cried.
Craig stood on the sidewalk in front of his townhouse, waiting for George to bring the car around. Preferring not to be conspicuous, Craig had purchased a Mercedes, not the Bentley, that had caught his eye. The shiny black car pulled up and double parked. The trunk popped open.
Craig carried his luggage to the back, then went back for George’s modest bag. George put the vehicle in park and assisted his boss. Once they had everything packed in, Craig headed for the driver’s seat.
“I’ll drive, George. You can navigate.”
“As you wish. We certainly are bringing an inordinate amount of stuff. Will Miss Laura have room in her house of all this?”
“It’s just the essentials. I mean, I could have brought another suitcase with books and music, you know.”
“Heavens! She’d have to move out to make room,” George said.
Craig smiled. “I know when you’re baiting me, George. I’ve finally figured you out.”
“Damn. It’s such fun.”
“Which way do I go, navigator?”
George gave directions to the West Side highway, then pulled a map out of the glove compartment.
“Let’s see, Pine Grove.”
“Did you bring a magnifying glass?” Craig chuckled.
“Small towns can be delightful.”
“I know you came from a small town in England, but you been in New York for a long time.”
“My heart will always rest in a quaint village.”
“Don’t think you’ll get ‘quainter’ than Pine Grove.”
“Really? You’ve been there?” George cocked an eyebrow.
“I grew up not far from it. In Oak Bend. I don't remember much, but from the way Laura talks about it. Sounds nice.”
Craig steered the car across the George Washington Bridge, then veered off right onto the Palisades Parkway.
“Music?” George asked.
Craig nodded. It was three days before Christmas. At ten o’clock, they were almost the only ones on the road. George put on Christmas music. Craig smiled.
“Haven’t heard those songs in a while.”
“Figured it would get you in the mood.”
“Oh, I’m in the mood, George. Definitely in the mood.”
“Not that mood! You’re always in that mood. I meant a bit of the Christmas spirit.”
“Of course. Feel free to sing along. You have a good voice.”
“Thank you. I believe I will,” George replied.
George raised his voice along with “Joy to the World.” Craig smiled. Joy would be coming his way as soon as he reconnected with his beloved.
“This is one of my favorites,” Craig said, as “Carol of the Bells” came on.
The sky clouded over and the air got cooler. George turned up the heat a tad.
“Clouds gathering,” George said.
“Rain in the forecast?”
“Not in Pine Grove. Snow, I believe.”
Craig snorted his displeasure.
“It’s northern country, sir. You’ll have to adjust.”
“Damn. Why couldn’t we be visiting in the summer?”
“Because Christmas falls in December,” George said, smiling.
“You know, if I didn’t like you so much, George, you’re being right all the time could get very annoying.”
“I’m sorry. It’s my nature.”
“There you go again.”
This time George laughed out loud.
Craig relaxed at the wheel, maneuvering the Mercedes around slower cars, speeding toward his destination.
“Take it easy. We have plenty of time.”
“I hope she’ll like my present. And that I can stand her house.”
“I’m sure she’ll love her gift. As for her house, it’s a short stay and you’ll have to reach into your heart and tap into all the patience you can muster. It will be smaller. It won’t be as warm. And probably not as comfortable overall. I understand there’s only one bathroom and a powder room.”
“How do people live like that?”
“People live with a lot less. Get over it. At least there’s a powder room, too.”
“Probably a double bed, not king.”
“All the better to huddle together for warmth at night,” George remarked.
“Your positive attitude is annoying, too.”
“You used to live near her?” George changed the subject.
“It was a lifetime ago.”
“I see.” George settled back in his seat and stared out the window.
Craig’s mind flipped back to the days gone by, when he was a boy, living with uncle C.W. Christmas had been difficult in those hardscrabble days. When he was ten, he used to hitchhike into Pine Grove, to a place called “Santa’s Thrift Shop.” The woman who ran the place, Mrs. Davenport, allowed kids with no money to pick out items from her second-hand treasures to give as presents to their parents and siblings.
The rule was that you weren’t supposed to take anything for yourself. A bright red yoyo had tempted Craig. He’d taken it, swearing it was for a brother he didn’t have. At home, he hid the treasure. He played with it a few times, after he’d finished his chores.
Feeling guilty about having taken something for himself, he stopped using it, but still keeping it safely hidden. One night at dinner, Uncle C.W. had mentioned the store.
“We’re not the poorest people in Oak Bend.”
“Nope. Half the kids in your school don’t have as much as you.”
“Really.” He reeled off the names of five boys Craig knew, and explained how Craig had a roof over his head, three squares a day, and a new pair of pants and two shirts at the start of school every year.
Craig had no idea his classmates got by on less food and hand-me-downs. Guilt entered his heart. He took the yoyo to school the next day. Picking Ralph, the boy with the most deprivation, he presented him with his prize possession. The first thing Ralph did after he took a turn with the toy was give Craig a chance. They became best friends for the next eight years until Ralph went into the Army.
Craig sighed, remembering. He’d vowed to himself that he’d never be poor as an adult. Uncle C.W. had worked and saved for years to launch a Wall Street career. Once he did, things soared and Craig never had to visit Santa’s Thrift Shop again.
He used to send a check every holiday, but that had fallen by the wayside in recent years. Looks like it was time to renew the gift. After all, he’d already be in Pine Grove. The shop had taught him humility, or maybe it was Uncle C.W. To this day, Craig wondered how his uncle had found out about the yoyo. He’d have to remember to ask him, next time they were together.
After stopping for lunch, Craig hit the gas pedal and zoomed toward tiny Pine Grove. With George manning the GPS, they got perfect directions to Laura’s house.
Excitement flooded his veins and sweat broke out under his arms. The little Victorian, painted blue, dripped with charm. A dollhouse. He chuckled to himself. George rang the bell. Laura opened the door and stepped back to let them pass. The smell of fresh paint greeted his nose. He peeked from the foyer into the living room. Good grief, red?
“I just had it painted and the man did the wrong color on purpose because he’s mad at me, it’s supposed to be light yellow. I know it’s awful but I can’t fix it for two weeks, I’m really sorry,” she said all at once. Breathless, she blinked back tears.
Craig stepped into the room.
“It’s beautiful. I’m so used to bland colors, I forget how vibrant real color can be. It suits you, beautiful, strong, and passionate,” Craig said, taking her into his embrace.
She circled his neck with her arms and raised her chin. His kiss heated her blood. She had missed his physical affection as much as the emotional. His strength cocooning her, shielding her told her everything would be all right.
When they broke, she rested her cheek against his shoulder for a moment, drinking in his unique, masculine scent and his expensive aftershave. The feel of his smooth jacket against her skin was cool. Strong muscle braced her. God, how had she survived for days without him?
“Darling,” she murmured, happiness flooding her veins.
The clearing of George’s throat brought Laura back to reality.
“I’m so sorry, George That’s very rude of me.”
“Understandable,” he replied.
“Come, let’s put your stuff away and take the grand tour,” she said, drawing her lower lip between her teeth.
They climbed the stairs in silence. Laura’s heart seemed to rest next to her windpipe. She knew the men were too polite to say anything, but that wouldn’t stop a careless gesture or off-hand remark.
“It’s charming, Miss Laura,” George said.
She smiled as she led them to the kitchen. “Come see the tree before we go outside.”
“Light the fire, sweetheart. You know how I am about drafts,” Craig said, rubbing his hands together.
“Let’s go outside first. I’ll put up coffee, or would you prefer tea or hot chocolate?”
“Tea for me,” George said.
“Coffee or hot chocolate, whichever is easier,” Craig said, folding his arms across his chest.
They donned their coats and exited the house.
“Those woods are state land. No one can ever build behind me.”
“Do you get much wildlife here?” George asked, venturing off the deck.
“Oh, yes. Craig, you’ll love the birds as I do. And we get deer, skunks, gophers, groundhogs, coyotes, and bear, too.”
“Bears? Coyotes? I’ll stay inside.”
“Don’t be a stuffy city boy, Craig. I know you grew up around here.” She took his arm.
“Being chased by a bear once in my life is plenty, thank you.”
“You were chased by a bear?” Laura’s eyes widened.
“Didn’t I tell you that story?”
Laura shook her head. Craig steered them back toward the house.
“Coffee ready, do you think?”
“Probably. And I made cookies yesterday,” she replied.
“You think of everything. Let’s go. It’s damn cold out here.”
“The word ‘bracing’ comes to mind.”
“I’m going to brace myself around the fire with a cup of hot coffee and tell Laura my story.”
“Since I’ve heard it, would you mind if I took a walk?”
“Go ahead,” Craig said.
George tramped off in the light snow while the couple headed inside. Once they were situated by a blazing fire, Laura remembered about Ginger Lennox.
“I forgot to tell you, I’ve invited some friends for dinner tonight. And one is a single woman, about forty.”
She nodded taking a sip of her beverage. Craig put his palms up toward the fire for warming.
“What does she look lilke?”
“I’ve never met her.”
“I hope she’s pretty.”
“Jess and Will are both attractive. No reason to assume their cousin isn’t.”
Her cell beeped. A text came in . Laura frowned.
“Will Lennox isn’t coming.”
“Oh?” Craig cocked an eyebrow.
“I suppose that’s a good thing. He’s the man who painted the living room red. Said the color was perfect for a scarlet woman like me.”
Craig laughed. “Too bad he’s not coming. I’d like to thank him.”
Before Craig could make a move on Laura, the door opened. A gust of cold wind swirled about the room as a scowling George entered the house. His legs were soaking wet.
“George! What happened?” Laura jumped up.
“The kitchen?” He asked.
“This way.” Laura led him to the room with Craig trotting along behind.
“Sir, would you mind fetching me another pair of pants?”
“Of course,” Craig said, perusing his colleague.
“Oh! Oh, dear. What happened?” Laura asked.
When Craig returned with a pair of jeans, Laura left the room.
“All clear. He’s decent,” Craig called after George had changed. She rejoined them. Taking the pants, she faced George. “Can these go in the drying?”
“I’m afraid not. They are dry clean only.”
She nodded, and took them to the bathroom to dry. When she returned, George was filling the kettle at the sink. Laura turned on the flame and brought down cups and saucers.
“Some infernal woman. Doesn’t know how to drive. I was walking along the edge of someone’s lawn. Have you ever noticed you have no sidewalks here?”
“Continue,” Craig said.
“I’m walking along, enjoying the air and the countryside. Minding my own business, mind you! When a car comes out of nowhere, going too fast, of course. Some woman at the wheel. She skids on ice and comes barreling toward me. Right into a giant puddle of ice, slush and water. She stopped inches from my legs.
“Oh my God! What did you do?”
“She got out of the car and came rushing over. She asked me if I was all right. And I said ‘Madam’. And that’s when she did it.”
“Did it?” Craig cocked an eyebrow.
“Get your mind out of the gutter, Craig.”
“What did she do?” Laura asked.
“She slapped me! Slapped me! Can you imagine?”
“She said something about not being a madam or a prostitute, I think, then whacked me across the face.”
Craig laughed out loud.
“It’s not funny! I said to her, I’m British. And she said she didn’t care if I was from the North Pole, nobody talks to her that way.”
“Oh, dear, George,” Laura said, smiling, her eyes sympathetic. “And she splashed all that on you?”
“She did, indeed. No offer to pay for dry cleaning. No lift back here. She got in her car and drove off. I froze getting back here.”
Laura turned the heat off the whistling kettle and poured the steaming water into the teapot.
“Hot tea, coming up. Are you hungry? One of my scones always makes things better.”
Craig left and returned quickly with the crocheted throw that had warmed his legs. He threw it around his friend’s shoulders..
“Here you go. You need to warm up. Can’t have you getting sick.”
“I’ll try not to. That woman! Redheads. They’re all like that. Quick to temper,” George said, then sneezed.
As soon as it was properly steeped, Laura poured. George added milk and sugar, then sipped.
“Was she hot?” Craig asked.
“Hot under the collar, for sure,” George muttered.
“No, no, I mean pretty,” Craig said.
“Who could tell? With my legs freezing and my face stinging…”
“Now, George. I know you. That’s not something you’d miss.”
The other man colored.
“See? I knew it. Come clean,” Craig urged.
“If she hadn’t been so rude and nasty. If she hadn’t assaulted me, I guess you could say she was mildly attractive.”
“Redhead, huh? Never cared for those,” Craig muttered, shaking his head.
“Good. Because I don’t intend to change my hair color,” Laura put in.
“Besides, I have the best woman in the world,” Craig replied, slipping his arm around Laura’s shoulders.
The three munched on scones, drank tea, and soothed George’s ruffled feathers.
“Really, I mean. I’d never say anything like that to a lady. Especially one I’ve never met. She was so rude!”
“Don’t worry, George. I’m sure you won’t see her again,” Laura said, fixing the blanket around his shoulders.
“I should hope not,” he muttered.
“But if she’s hot, George.
I mean, you wouldn’t kick her out of bed, would you?”
“Craig! Please. There’s a lady present.”
“Okay, okay. Later.”
As soon as George warmed up the two men piled in the car while Laura did early prep for dinner.
“Turn on the GPS, in case we get lost.”
“Now you can tell me. Was she hot?”
“Your mind lives in the gutter, doesn’t it?”
“I’m a guy. What did you expect?”
“Honestly, I didn’t notice. I was so flabbergasted by the icy water, then her slap. American women should learn some manners.”
They rode around the tiny town, circled around the frozen lake, then back home.
“Not much here, George,” Craig said.
“It’s quiet. Good for you, I suspect.”
“Maybe. Laura’s good for me.”
“Then find a way to cope with a different lifestyle.”
When they arrived home, Laura had finished her work.
“Time to refill the bird feeders. Want to help?”
George shot a sharp look at Craig.
“Sure,” he said.
“By the way, George. I’ve been wracking my brain and the only redheads I know in Pine Grove are either children, or one senior citizen. Must be a visitor,” Laura said.
“Maybe she’ll leave soon and I won’t have another encounter.”
Craig and Laura went outside.
"Isn't Ginger a nickname for redheaded people?" Laura asked.
“Oh, crap,” Craig returned, capturing her gaze.
* * * *
Laura and Craig feigned sleepiness at nine so they could steal away from George and have private time together. They made love quietly, twice, then curled up together in the cool air to sleep. In the morning, she arose first. Before she could escape to put up coffee, Craig had snaked his arm over her middle.
“Just going to make coffee.”
“That wait. I haven’t seen you in days.”
She laughed. “Five days, maybe?”
“It seems like eternity.”
“You’re such a spoiled brat sometimes.”
She nodded. He opened his eyes to stare at her. “Why do you put up with me?”
“Because you’re a caring, smart, wonderful man.”
“It’s just the sex, now isn’t it? You can be honest.”
She had to muffle her laughter with her hand or wake up George.
“Oh, really? The sex is that bad?”
She snuggled down next to him. “It’s wonderful, too,” she whispered.
Craig pulled the blanket over them. “It’s damn cold in here.”
“Should I light the fire?”
“Waste of wood, unless we stay here all day. And where would that leave poor George.”
“Fifteen more minutes,” she said, kissing him.
“Now that’s an energy-efficient way to warm me up.”
When Laura finally separated herself from her lover, she wrapped her body in a flannel robe and padded to the kitchen. She almost dropped her teeth to find George, fully dressed, sipping tea, and the coffeemaker working.
“Good morning, Miss.”
“George! I had no idea you were such an early riser.”
“I enjoy the early morning hours. I can get things done. Craig likes to sleep in.”
“I know. I’m a morning person, too.” She poured a mug of coffee and joined him at the table. She saw birds at the feeder.
“I fed them. Also made myself breakfast. Can I get you some?”
“You fed the birds? How lovely. Thank you. I’m sure they thank you, too. I see they are busy eating already.”
“You have a nice crowd there.” He nodded toward the sturdy tree that was home to the feeders.
“I enjoy their company. You said you ate already?”
“I’m a morning person. I like to start my day with breakfast. Eggs and one of your delightful scones did the trick.”
“You are the easiest guest, aren’t you?”
“I try to be unobtrusive.”
Laura took the pan from the drying rack, put it on the stove, and headed for the fridge.
“I have some country bacon. Would you care to indulge?”
“Always fancied bacon, Miss.”
“Excellent. Would you wake Craig? I’ll get started.”
When they had finished eating, Craig finished his coffee and directed his attention at Laura.
“What’s the plan for today?”
“There are several things going on in town. There’s a carol sing this afternoon at the church. Four o’clock until five thirty. Hmm, tomorrow there’s cider and donuts at Christmas Village at eleven. The Christmas pageant at the high school will be tomorrow.”
Craig smiled. “Country life at Christmas, eh?”
“Not exactly New York City, but these event mean a lot to the people here.”
“I’m looking forward to these. I’m told I have a fairly decent voice. Wouldn’t want to miss the carol sing,” George put in.
“I sing like a squealing monkey. I’ll go, but promise to keep my voice down,” Craig said.
Laura studied his face. The lines around his eyes and mouth had smoothed out, his smile appeared wider than usual. Perhaps the country agreed with him?
“I do need to make one stop. Mrs. Davenport isn’t still around, is she?”
“You mean the lady who runs Santa’s Thrift Shop?”
“How did you know?” Craig straightened in his chair.
“I used to go there when I was a kid. Mrs. Davenport passed away some years ago. But her daughter, Giselle, is running it now.”
“Giselle? I remember her. She was a pretty hot twelve-year-old,” Craig said, chuckling.
Laura shook her head and laughed. “You would remember her that way. She’s all grown up and beautiful. But I think she has her eye on someone. Anyway, the shop is open if you’d like to stop by.”
“George, did you bring the checkbook?”
“I did, indeed, sir.”
“Good. I’ll get dressed and we can head on over.”
“Don’t worry about the dishes. I’ll take care of them,” George added.
“George, you’re a guest…”
“Gives me a little more time to watch the birds.”
“He loves that stuff, come on, let’s go,” Craig said, tugging on her sleeve.
Laura sighed and followed him back to the bedroom. As tempting as it was to fall back into bed with him, curiosity about what he intended to do at the tiny second-hand shop kept her focused on getting ready and ignoring the hot man in the room.
* * * *
Laura drove them to Santa’s Thrift Shop. As he walked up the steps, memories flooded through Craig. Emotion choked him. A fear, feeling of insecurity shot through him for a moment. He was taken back to when he was ten years old. Sweat broke out on his palms, his mouth got dry.
Until he was fourteen, he had to find a gift for his uncle at Santa’s Thrift Shop. While he was grateful to be able to give a gift to his uncle, he hated that it came from charity. When he found work after school, he had saved a few cents every month. By Christmas, he’d had enough to buy a brand new, small present for the uncle he adored.
He’d bought Uncle C.W. a book on fishing. The man had made a big fuss over the little tome. Warmth spread through him as he recalled the good feeling of giving someone you love something you bought with your own money. He’d never forgotten that. As C.W.’s success mushroom in later years, he and Craig had carried on the tradition of gift-giving.
“What a great idea,” George said, strolling through the small shop, stopping to examine an item here and there.
“It sure helped me,” Craig said. “Do you have the envelope?” He turned to his right hand man.
“Right here, sir.” George plucked it from the breast pocket of his jacket.
“Giselle!” Craig called.
The beautiful, young woman approached.
“I’m sorry I stopped sending you donations. Here’s one to help make up for the years I missed.” He handed it to her. When she opened it, her eyes widened.
“This is too much. You really shouldn’t,” she stammered.
“It’s the least I can do. You run a great place here,” Craig replied. “Ready, Laura?”
The three returned to the car.
“How much did you give her?” Laura couldn’t stop her curiosity.
“That’s very generous of you.”
“It’s important for kids to get the giving part of Christmas,” Craig replied. “Let’s go out to lunch. What’s a good place?”
“We could go to Homer’s.”
“Fine. Take us there.”
Craig froze from the car to the restaurant. He ordered a hot, buttered rum and gazed out the window. Laura and George had hot chocolate. The restaurant was smack dab on the edge of Cedar Lake. He peered out the frosted window. The lake was completely frozen over. There was a small structure on the ice in the center.
“What’s that? Looks like an outdoor bathroom,” George remarked.
“Probably Clyde and Harvey, ice fishing,” Laura replied.
“They cut a huge hole in the ice, drop in fishing lines and wait.”
“Isn’t it damn cold out there for that?” Craig shivered in sympathy.
“That’s why they built that lean-to. Keeps the wind off. And, rumor has it, that more whiskey is drunk than fish caught,” Laura said.
“Some men will do anything to get out of the house,” George said with a chuckle.
They finished up and Craig paid the bill. When they got home, Jasper was meowing at the back door.
“Damn fool! You’re a city cat. It’s too cold out there for you,” Craig said, picking up the animal.
“He probably wants to get at my birds. No way, Jasper. You stay inside.”
Laura spent the afternoon preparing for the big dinner. She smiled to herself that George had no idea he was being fixed up. She attended to every detail, hoping the meal would smooth the way to a possible romance for him. She had grown fond of George in the time she’d known him and wanted him to be happy.
Craig and George had spent some time going over a few business details, then they stretched out on comfortable chairs in front of the fire and read the hours away.
Laura squeezed in a shower before the guests were due to arrive. She slipped on a red velvet dress and black velvet flats. Craig and George both changed for dinner, donning dress shirts and sports jackets.
“Who’s coming?” Craig asked, as he uncorked a bottle of wine.
“My friend, Jess Lennox and her cousin, Ginger.”
Before she could explain, the doorbell rang. Laura went to answer it. A gust of cold, snowy air blew in with the women. As they brushed the flakes from their coats, Laura turned to make introductions.
“George, Craig…”she began.“You!” George almost shouted, staring at the redhead unbuttoning her coat.
The eyes of the pretty redhead widened, then narrowed as she stared at George.
“You’re that rude man, I met the other day.”
“You’re that rude man, I met the other day.”
“Rude? Madam…no, wait! Don’t hit me.” George backed up. Ginger held her ground.
“I asked you not to call me that.”
“It’s simply a manner of addressing a woman you don’t know. It doesn’t mean anything. I call Laura, ‘miss’, sometimes. Just a manner of speaking.”
“Maybe we’d better go,” Jess said, turning away.
“No! Please don’t. I have fixed a nice meal for us all. Please stay. Ginger?” Laura’s eyes pleaded along with her words.
“Since you went to so much trouble. I guess we should. Just please don’t sit me next to him,” the redhead said, pointing to George.
Laura took their coats. “Craig, would you please put these in the bedroom? Thank you. Sit down. There are snacks on the coffee table. Craig’s in charge of drinks.” Laura hustled into the kitchen.
Of all the dumb luck! Craig joined her a few minutes later. He opened two bottles of wine.
“Unbelievable,” he said, shaking his head, pulling wine glasses down from the cabinet.
“I know,” she agreed, doling out portions of salad onto small plates.
“She’d have been perfect for him, if that hadn’t happened.”
“That’s what we get for playing cupid,” Laura said.
Craig sidled up to her. “You never know. Look at how we met? Weird is putting it mildly. She grinned up at him. He bent to press his lips to hers.
“Meeting you was a Christmas miracle,” she said, resting her palm on his chest.
He returned her smile, palming her cheek. George entered the room.
“What’s holding things up in here? I don’t mean to be rude, but you’ve left me stranded in hostile territory,” George said, plucking a handkerchief from his pocket and mopping his brow.
“Sorry, sorry, old boy. Coming.” Craig stole one more quick kiss from Laura, then picked up the wine and headed back to the dining room, with George following.
Laura put the salad plates on a tray and brought them to the living room. Her nerves kicked up when stony silence surrounded her. She’d have to take over or there'd be war.
“Jess tells me you own a farm, Ginger. Do you have cattle?”
“I’m a dairy farm,” the redhead said, glancing up at Laura, once, then at George, then back down to her plate.
“Do you have a garden, too?” Laura continued.
“Of course. I raise all the vegetables we eat.”
“That’s convenient,” George put in. Laura wanted to kiss him for making an effort.
“It’s a lot of work to tend a garden that big.” Ginger took a forkful of lettuce.
Silence blanketed the room again as they ate their salad. As the tension grew, Laura’s stomach began to churn. She excused herself and retreated to the kitchen. She pulled the roast leg of lamb from the oven. The scent had permeated the house, making her mouth water. But now, all she wanted was for the meal to be over.
She took out her favorite platter and transferred the meat. Craig joined her.
“I don’t know who needs more help, me with the carving or George at the table.”
“I’ll take a peek out there, then I’ll come back. That looks great.”
“It should be,” she said, manning a slotted spoon to retrieve the potatoes that had cooked in the lamb fat.
* * * *
After Craig had left the table, George looked longingly at the kitchen door, as if he could bring his boss back by sheer force of will. He took a sip of wine, then cautioned himself to be careful. Getting drunk would only make matters worse.
“You’re from England, George?” Jess asked, wiping her mouth with her napkin.
“How long have you been here?”
“Many years, Miss Lennox.”
“Please, call me Jess.”
George nodded. He’d have to dive into the conversation. He glanced at Ginger’s left hand and found a question. Smiling he opened his mouth.
“What’s your husband’s primary task on the farm, may I ask?”
Ginger blanched. Her eyes watered. She looked down at her left hand and covered it with her right, her fingers twisting the wedding band.
“My husband died. Six months ago,” she said, pushing away from the table and heading out the back door.
George’s stomach sank through the floor. If ever there had been a wrong question to ask, that was it. He blanched, sweat broke out on his brow.
“I’m so sorry. I had no idea. I mean she wears a wedding ring…” he began.
Jess reached over and put her hand on his arm. “It’s not your fault. I keep telling her to take that off, but she says she’s not ready.” Jess pushed back in her chair.
George raised his palm. “You stay. I’ll go. It was my blunder. I’ll fix it.” He rose before Jess could protest. Walking swiftly, he eased open the back door and joined Ginger on the deck. Her arms wrapped around her middle in a feeble attempt to keep warm. She sniffled.
“Here,” George said, handing her a tissue he always kept in his breast pocket.
“Here,” George said, handing her a tissue he always kept in his breast pocket.
“Thank you,” she said, taking it, but not turning to face him.
“I’m so very sorry. I had no idea,” he went on.
“It’s not your fault. It’s mine. Jess keeps telling me to take the ring off. Habit, I guess.” She slid the plain gold band from her finger, and dropped it in her pocket. “Feels funny, like I’m naked.”
George chuckled. “I know the feeling.”
“How could you?”
“I lost my wife a number of years ago.”
She turned to him. “Oh. I didn’t know you’d been married.”
“I have three lovely children with her.”
“Aren’t you lucky. We weren’t blessed with children.”
“That’s a shame. Pity not to pass on that lovely shade of auburn,” he said, glancing at her hair.
She blushed, sending a pretty pink to her cheeks. “Thank you.”
Her shy smile and pretty face enchanted George. He took her hand in both of his, rubbing his thumb on the indentation where the ring had been.
“The mark will go away, but the emptiness in your heart never will,” he said, quietly. “I still miss Eleanor.”
Ginger gazed up into his eyes. “I suppose that’s true.”
“Unless you fill it with another, of course,” he replied.
She laughed. “I think that’s why I was invited to dinner.”
“That’s exactly what I was thinking. How we’ve mucked up their plans by our tiff,” he chuckled, shaking his head.
She laughed. “They deserve it for matchmaking.”
“Craig's always pushing me to find another. But this time he’s gone too far.”
“I’m sorry to disappoint you.”
“Oh, my dear. You haven’t disappointed at all. You’re lovely. But Craig shouldn’t be meddling in my life.”
“Maybe he just wants you to be happy?” Ginger asked.
“True. Now that he’s in love, he’s acting like a fool. Thinks everyone should be in love and have a partner. Even the dogs he passes on the street. He’s ridiculous.” George made a sound with his mouth.
“But they are a lovely couple, aren’t they?”
“They are. But just because he’s finally happy, doesn’t mean everyone should seek what he’s found.”
“Maybe not. I think it’s kinda sweet of them. To match us up, I mean.”
“I’m sure you’re disappointed to be paired with a high-and-mighty Englishman.”
“Not at all. Although I hadn’t thought about dating, they made a good choice when they picked you.”
George’s heart swelled. Ginger was very attractive, in a subtle, sort of elegant way –exactly the type of woman who appealed to George. He hated flashy women, and Ginger, in a soft, forest green corduroy dress and gold jewelry fit the bill.
Still holding her hand, and gazing into her green eyes, he got lost in reverie.
“Maybe we’d better go back?” She suggested.
George shifted his weight. “Definitely. Otherwise, they’ll think we came to blows out here.”
“And it’s getting cold.” Ginger shivered.
George slid his arm around her shoulders and drew her to him. “How thoughtless of me. Keeping you all to myself out here in the freezing cold. Come.”
He led her into the dining room. Although he’d never admit it, Craig and Laura had made a good choice when they matched him with Ginger. He hoped he wouldn’t ruin it with his blundering ways. He almost did, but he'd had a second chance. A farm woman for the sophisticated British gentleman didn’t seem a match made in heaven.
But then, neither did a billionaire and a country house-sitter, did they?
The guests ooh’d and aaah’d over the beautiful leg of lamb. Craig helped serve while George refilled wine glasses. Laura brought out the sauerkraut dish and the butternut squash. Laura spied a shy smile on Ginger’s face as she handed the bowl to George. Her guts relaxed as tension drained out of her body. Seemed as if George and Ginger might hit if off. At least they were friendly, not hostile anymore.
“This lamb is delicious,” Craig said, cutting another piece.
“Oh, yes. We never have anything like this,” Jess said.
“I’m glad you like it,” Laura said. She’d never seen Jess eat so much meat. A pang of emotion squeezed her heart. Jess was poor. They only had what she earned baking for the café in town and a couple of restaurants and what Will made as a carpenter, taking odd jobs. She hadn't realized they couldn’t afford much meat.
Laura passed the plate of lamb to her friend.
“Thank you. I hope you don’t mind me making a pig of myself,” Jess said, with a laugh.
“I’m so happy you like it.”
“Done perfectly,” the pretty blonde replied.
Jess was thin. She could eat all the lamb she wanted without worrying about a few pounds. Laura took a critical look at the young woman. A few more pounds wouldn’t hurt Jess Lennox one bit.
When the main course was finished, Jess and Ginger jumped up to clear the table.
“You sit right there, Laura. You’ve worked hard on this meal.”
“Okay. You twisted my arm.” Laura said, grateful not to have to do the work. “There’s homemade apple pie for dessert.”
“Oh, I couldn’t eat another bite. Would you mind if I left early? I hate to disrupt the party, but I have pies due early tomorrow and I need to get a head start tonight.”
“Not at all. Do whatever you have to. This is a busy time of year for everyone.”
One glance at Ginger’s face, and her disappointment was evident. Laura grinned. “Don’t worry about Ginger. We’ll run her home when the meal's over,” Laura said.
“Oh, thank you so much. I’d hate to see her miss your special pie,” Jess said.
When they had finished clearing, Laura walked Jess to the door.
“Looks like George and Ginger are a hit! Nice work,” Jess whispered.
“It’s a shame Will didn’t come. I got into an argument with him. I’m afraid he’s pouting.”
“It’s just as well. I think he’d be real jealous of Craig,” Jess confided.
Laura’s brows knitted. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“He’ll get over it. He should have made his move long ago.”
“I don’t think it would have helped. Will’s always been like a brother to me.”
“I get it. It’s okay.”
After a brief hug, Jess went out into the cold, her arms wrapped around her thin coat.
Laura frowned, as she returned to the table. Ginger was slicing the pie. Craig came from the kitchen carrying a tray with mugs of coffee, milk and sugar.
“So you travel around the world with Mr. Banley?” Ginger asked.
“I do, indeed. I’m the major domo. I make all the plans and set up the meetings,” George said.
“Where do you go?”
George regaled her with a brief description of the last trip he and Craig had taken. Ginger hung on every word. They finished their dessert, with many thanks and compliment to Laura.
George regaled her with a brief description of the last trip he and Craig had taken. Ginger hung on every word. They finished their dessert, with many thanks and compliment to Laura.
“I’m going to take care of the dishes. Ginger, would you keep me company? I can fill you in on our next trip without boring Craig or Laura.”
“I’d be honored. I’ll dry,” she said, pushing away from the table.
George and Ginger cleared the table. Craig reached for Laura’s hand.
* * * *
While his boss snuggled in front of the fire with his honey, George manned the kitchen. Highly organized and efficient, he set about filling the sink with dishes and running the water until it got hot. He rolled up his sleeves, grabbed the sponge and went to work.
Ginger hunted around, opening drawers and cabinets until she found the dish towels.
“I’m ready,” she said.
George smiled at her and handed over a wet plate.
“How big is your place, if you don’t mind me asking?”
Ginger went on to describe her farm. George listened. He watched her eyes light up, when she talked about how she and her husband, John, and taken a failing farm and revived it. Her brow wrinkled when she mentioned John’s name.
“Do you mind telling me how your husband died?”
“I can talk about it now. A little bit, anyway. It was a tractor accident.”
George wiped his hands on a towel and closed his fingers over her forearm. “How terrible!”
“It was. Sudden death. The shock almost killed me.”
“I’m sure. That’s tragic.” He resumed washing.
“It seemed so at the time. But I’m managing. I’ve hired some help, though I can’t afford much. Still, everything manages to get done. More or less.”
“It must be overwhelming to do that on your own.”
“At times I don’t know how I’ll get through the day. But I always do.”
She blushed. “Not really. Just puttin’ one foot in front of the other.”
“Not everyone could cope the way you do.”
“Thank you,” she said, putting another dried dish on the stack. “What about you?”
“My Eleanor passed over five years ago, now.”
“How did you manage?”
“I had the children to help.”
“But didn’t they need you?”
“They did. That’s what made it easier. They diverted my attention, so I could get used to being without her, slowly,” he said, with a sigh. “It’s been a while, but I still miss her.”
Ginger touched his shoulder. “I know what you mean.”
“It does get easier with time. Your loss is still quite fresh.”
“I’m too busy and too tired to spend too much time grieving. I have a business to maintain.”
“Would you think about selling?”
“I don’t know where I’d go or what I’d do, if I did.”
They worked in silence for a while, the only sound being the running of the water and the clink of the dishes.
“Would you like to come out to breakfast with me tomorrow?” George asked.
“I’d love that.”
“I don’t know any place around here.”
“There’s a nice diner in Oak Bend. We could go there.”
“Perfect. What time should I pick you up?”
“Why don’t I get Jess or Will to drop me off here? Say nine?”
“That would be splendid.”
“It’s a date then?” George asked, turning off the water and drying his hands.
“It’s a date.” She graced him with a beautiful smile.
Grasping both her shoulders, George leaned over and kissed her. Her eyes widened in surprise.
“Pardon me, but I like to get that out of the way first. Reduces tension, don’t you think?”
“Good idea. But you caught me off guard. Maybe you should try it again?”
* * * *
Craig reached for Laura’s hand. “Why don’t we finish our coffee by the fire?”
She nodded. They ambled over. Laura put hers on the table while she resuscitated the embers. “Cold?” She asked, glancing at Craig.
“You have to admit, tt’ a bit chilly.”
“For city slickers, I guess so,” she said, suppressing a smile.
“You’re making fun of me.”
“Perhaps, just a little,” she admitted.
Once the fire was roaring, they curled up on the sofa together. Jess’s plight grabbed her attention.
“I’ve never been rich, but I’ve always had enough money to make ends meet. Did you see how thin Jess is? I didn’t know they couldn’t afford to buy a lot of meat. That’s very sad. I will invite them over for dinner more often.”
“Now that you mention it, she is quite thin.”
“I guess Ginger was the right choice for George, after all,” Laura said.
“We’ll see. I hope he doesn’t screw it up. He almost did.”
“That was her fault more than his.”
“You always take George’s side, don’t you?”
“He’s always right.”
Craig laughed. “You see that, too? I thought I was the only one.”
“And I’m sure he’d agree with you,” Laura chuckled, pulling a crocheted throw over their legs.
Craig rose, taking their mugs in his hand. “Let me drop these off while George is washing.”
She nodded. He ambled over to the kitchen, pushed open the door, stood for a moment in the doorway, stepped back and closed the door. He returned to sit beside Laura.
“Something wrong?”“Nope. George is practicing his goodnight kiss on Ginger, and I didn’t want to interrupt.”
Comments are welcome! Episode Eleven comes tomorrow!
In the meantime, if you want to read the first book, "The House-Sitter's Christmas", a sweet fairy tale holiday romance, here's how to get it. It's even in large print (great gift for those with visual issues) and on audio with dual narrators!